India-China relations and Bangladesh’s diplomatic strategy

Prime Minister Narendra Modi won a decisive third term in the Lok Sabha elections on June 4, 2024. This victory places India at a critical juncture in its relations with China. Retaining key figures like External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, the Indian government has signaled a strong commitment to addressing the longstanding issues along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Jaishankar’s recent remarks underscore the priority given to resolving the border disputes, a sentiment echoed by the Chinese Embassy in New Delhi, which advocates for a stable relationship and proper handling of border issues.

The Indo-China border, stretching over 3,400 kilometers, has been a source of contention for decades. The recent military standoff in Ladakh, where both nations have deployed approximately 60,000 troops, underscores the volatility of the region. This standoff, sparked in April 2020 when Chinese troops moved into territories claimed by India, resulted in a deadly clash that saw the loss of 20 Indian soldiers and an unspecified number of Chinese casualties.

Despite several rounds of talks between military commanders, some areas along the LAC remain unresolved. These tensions have historical precedents, with minor skirmishes occurring sporadically since 2013 in Aksai Chin and other sectors. The prolonged nature of the current standoff suggests a shift in China’s approach, similar to its assertive territorial claims in the South China Sea, Taiwan, and Japan. This strategy, often termed “salami slicing,” involves incremental territorial advances that cumulatively alter the status quo.

Beyond the immediate border disputes, India harbors concerns over China’s expanding influence in South Asia and the Indian Ocean. The substantial Chinese presence in neighboring countries and its burgeoning naval activities are perceived as encroachments into India’s strategic sphere. Furthermore, China’s deep ties with Pakistan, an “all-weather” ally, exacerbate India’s security anxieties, raising the specter of a potential two-front conflict.

In response, India has sought to bolster its security framework by enhancing ties with the United States. This includes significant defense acquisitions, interoperability agreements, and institutionalized dialogues at various levels. Concurrently, India maintains its commitment to strategic autonomy, engaging robustly with Russia and participating in multilateral forums such as BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which also includes China.

Predicting a dramatic shift in India-China relations during Modi’s third term is challenging. The fundamental divergence in their approaches to the border dispute remains a significant barrier. China views the border issue as a colonial legacy that should not impede broader political and economic cooperation. In contrast, India insists on restoring the status quo at the border as a prerequisite for advancing bilateral relations.

Additionally, China’s perception of India through the lens of its relationship with the US complicates matters. As former Indian Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale notes, China often fails to recognize India’s independent agency, instead linking border tensions to India’s growing ties with Washington. This perspective overlooks India’s intrinsic strategic considerations and aspirations.

To bridge this gap, China must acknowledge India’s steadfast commitment to strategic autonomy and its refusal to align with any security bloc. Recognizing India as an autonomous player could pave the way for improved bilateral relations, fostering cooperation over competition.

Amidst this complex geopolitical landscape, Bangladesh finds itself navigating its relations with both India and China. As a smaller neighbor with strategic significance, Bangladesh’s diplomatic policy must balance its ties with these two major powers carefully.

Bangladesh’s foreign policy, based on the principle “Friendship to all, malice to none” as coined by the nation’s founder, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, should continue its policy of non-alignment and strategic balancing, fostering positive relations with both India and China. Given its geographical proximity and historical ties with India, maintaining strong bilateral relations is crucial. Simultaneously, Bangladesh should leverage economic opportunities presented by China, particularly in infrastructure development and trade.

Promoting regional cooperation through platforms like the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) can enhance Bangladesh’s diplomatic clout. These forums can facilitate dialogue and collaboration, mitigating regional tensions and fostering collective economic growth.

Bangladesh’s economic diplomacy should focus on diversifying its trade and investment partners. While China offers substantial investments, especially in infrastructure projects under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), balancing this with robust economic ties with India and other global players is essential. This diversification can reduce dependency on any single country, enhancing Bangladesh’s economic resilience.

Bangladesh should advocate for stability and peaceful resolution of disputes in the region. Supporting confidence-building measures between India and China can contribute to regional security, benefiting all South Asian nations. Additionally, maintaining a neutral stance in the India-China rivalry can help Bangladesh avoid entanglement in broader geopolitical conflicts.

As India and China navigate their complex relationship, the path forward will require nuanced diplomacy, strategic patience, and a commitment to dialogue. For India, addressing the border dispute and enhancing domestic capabilities are crucial steps. For China, recognizing India’s strategic autonomy and fostering equitable relations could reduce tensions.

Bangladesh, meanwhile, must adeptly balance its ties with both neighbors, promoting regional cooperation, economic diversification, and stability. In doing so, it can secure its national interests and contribute to a more harmonious South Asian region. The future of India-China relations, while uncertain, holds the potential for positive transformation if both nations embrace a collaborative approach grounded in mutual respect and understanding.

By maintaining a balanced, strategic approach, Bangladesh can navigate this challenging geopolitical landscape effectively. The emphasis should be on economic growth, regional stability, and fostering peaceful resolutions to conflicts, ensuring that Bangladesh remains a resilient and influential player in South Asia.

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